Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his primary sponsor Nationwide revealed the No. 88 Nationwide Insurance Gray Ghost Chevrolet SS Wednesday that Earnhardt will drive in the Southern 500 during Labor Day weekend in September. Last year’s throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway was a huge success with most of the entrants racing cars with schemes reminiscent of NASCAR’s earlier days. This year’s Southern 500 will throwback to the 1975-1984 era when drivers such as Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip raced.
For his Southern 500 entry, Earnhardt’s paints scheme honors Buddy Baker’s No. 28 Gray Ghost paint scheme, which was made famous by Baker when he won the 1980 Daytona 500. The unveiling took place at the track in Darlington South Carolina Wednesday.
“The track is the perfect place to unveil our throwback weekend paint scheme. This place has so much history and has served our sport so well,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I appreciate Nationwide’s enthusiasm to be involved and their appreciation for the history of the sport as well. It certainly shines through with this paint scheme. It’s my favorite paint scheme.”
The paint scheme is also a way for sponsor Nationwide to pay homage to its own past. This year, Nationwide celebrates its 90th anniversary on April 14. It is a paint scheme Earnhardt himself helped design.
“The black and silver, the chrome numbers that NASCAR doesn’t allow any more,” Earnhardt said. “Those chrome numbers to me were very, very cool. But the black and silver was a mean looking race car, a real tough looking race car.
“I thought the colors and the chrome numbers really complimented each other really well. Buddy was this giant guy; it probably wouldn’t have been quite as cool a paint scheme if it had been a four-foot 10 guy driving it.”
The Baker car was named the “Gray Ghost” as is this current incantation. The color scheme blended in with the racing surface of the track and according to rivals seemed to appear out of nowhere, speeding past them on the track. Baker and crew chief Waddell Wilson not only won the 1980 Daytona 500 but also at Talladega Superspeedway. Baker’s average winning speed of 177.602 mph at Daytona, where he led 143 of 200 laps, remains a race record. The win 1980 Daytona win was even more special given the previous year. Baker had won the Daytona pole and his qualifying race but mechanical issues early in the Daytona 500 snatched victory from his grasp.
“He just seemed to be a great match with the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They were just so good, so fast. When they won the Daytona 500 after such a devastating loss after 1979 — they were the greatest thing down there, nobody could touch them throughout the entire weekend and then they didn’t even really get to race.”
“And then they went back in ’80 and won,” he added. “It was pretty neat; I know that was pretty special for Buddy to get that win. You can tell in some of the interviews from back then how important the Daytona 500 win was to him.”
Legendary driver and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. ran second to Baker, but according to Earnhardt Jr., his father “was just hanging on to his coattails all day long”.
“(He was) just lucky to be in the draft,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think Dad had the lead somehow or another, (through) pit cycles, to where (he) had like a 10-second lead and Buddy ran him down in like 20 laps. It was ridiculous.
“You could see all day long in that particular race Buddy wasn’t even really stretching the legs in that race car,” he added. “And when he had to, when he got nervous and it got down to the end and he had to make up that distance, he was beating the second-place car by half a second a lap almost. It was incredible.”
Buddy Baker passed away on August, 10, 2015. However, his legendary car will once again prowl the high banks of the historic Darlington Speedway in September.
“We’re so appreciative of Dale, Nationwide and Hendrick Motorsports for their support of our throwback race weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile said. “Dale’s Gray Ghost paint scheme is a wonderful reminder of our sport’s storied history. To honor a NASCAR legend like Buddy Baker in this way is what our “Tradition Continues” throwback weekend is all about.”